This weekend I visited the American Museum of Natural History to observe people using interactive technology in the wild. The reason I chose the museum is because it’s got an interesting collection of hands-on exhibits that use technology which the visitors have never seen. I was able to watch them interfacing with it for the first time.
For this post, I’ll focus on the ice core exhibit. The primary focus of the exhibit was a ≈16 foot long ice core from Greenland which was positioned horizontally about 4 feet off the ground. Around the core were a number of signs which included photos, data and information. Above the core was a video interview of one of the scientists. And positioned in front of the core was a touch screen that slides along a track for the length of the core. This screen is what I was primarily interested in.
I chose to observe this exhibit because it seemed like a pretty innovative way of exploring this unique object. At first glance the screen looked like a something that might allow you to peer deeper into the core either literally or figuratively, like a hybrid between an electron-microscope and a VH1 popup video.
It didn’t end up being quite that magical. The idle screen simply says “Touch the Screen to Begin.” It doesn’t say to begin what, and there’s nothing other than its form-factor that gives you further hints. But the handles on either side are a pretty good indication about how to use it, even if you don’t know what it is. Once you touch the screen you’re given a menu of 4 different data sets, such as climate and volcanic eruptions over the past 10,000 years. After making a selection, a graph appears that slides along the x-axis as you slide the screen, implying that the data is aligned with the segment of ice below the screen. Using the device was very intuitive—the physical affordance of the sliding track made it obvious that the core itself was a timeline.
The greatest let-down of this interface was that the screen actually obstructed the ice that the data was purportedly relating to. It felt less like like it was enhancing the core and more like it was getting in the way. I would have loved to see a magnified video of the ice, possibly even down to the level where pollen and particles of volcanic ash were visible. Instead you get a power-point, only a small slice of which you can see at any given point and limiting you from taking in the whole arc at once.
After I finished using it I started observing other people from a dark corner of the room. It was a little creepy. The first thing that I noticed was that people were actually pretty excited about seeing this ice core. There’s something inherently cool about capturing time in a physical object. Lots of “Oooohs” and pointing and pressing faces in to get a closer look.
I’d estimate that 1 in 3 visitors who looked at the exhibit decided to engage with the sliding screen. It was clearly taking a back seat to the ice core itself. The extent of the engagement was also surprising; most people would slide it down the track for a few inches, get the idea, and then move on. A few people navigated into the menu a few clicks, but it was a small minority.
A rather large design oversight is that the ice core, and thus the track, were positioned high enough that it was above the heads of a few kids who walked by. They didn’t even notice it.
The general impression that I left with is that the physical object was novel, intuitive and well constructed. However, the content was dull and the screen actually detracted from the primary focus of the exhibit—the core that it was obstructing.